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Dr. Sam Hughes

Dr. Sam Hughes

Senior Lecturer in Pain Neuroscience


 RILD Building L3 - 03.08


University of Exeter Medical School, RILD Building, RD&E Hospital Wonford, Barrack Road, Exeter, EX2 5DW, UK


My research is focused on understanding the modulation of experimentally induced and clinical pain states by endogenous analgesic systems in the central nervous system. I use this information to help guide the development of new and mechanism-driven therapies for chronic pain. 

I have a BSc in Pharmacology (1st class) from University College London and a PhD in Systems Neuroscience from the University of Bristol. During my PhD, I researched descending noradrenergic control systems during neuropathic pain in the labs of Prof Tony Pickering and Prof Bridget Lumb.

After my PhD, I moved to Imperial College London, where I spent four years using non-invasive brain stimulation techniques in sciatica patients and in human pain models in Dr Paul Strutton’s lab. I then moved to Kings College London to start a research fellowship (Kings Prize/Anthony Mellow Award) investigating the effects of non-invasive deep brain stimulation on the sensitisation of central nociceptive pathways with Dr Matthew Howard. 

In 2020 I joined the University of Plymouth as a Lecturer and started the Pain Modulation Lab at the Brain Research and Imaging Centre (BRIC). In 2022, I joined the University of Exeter as a Senior Lecturer in Pain Neuroscience.    


Research interests

Work carried out in my lab involves using neurotechnology (e.g. non-invasive brain stimulation, immersive virtual reality) to harness endogenous analgesic activity in descending pain control systems. We use a number of techniques to measure top-down modulation within central nociceptive pathways (e.g., quantitative sensory testing, neurophysiological assessment of spinal reflexes) in human pain models with a view to develop new, mechanism-driven therapeutics for chronic pain patients.  

Through interdisciplinary collaborations across the UK, I have a number of research projects with aim to understand how the brain, brainstem and spinal cord work to modulate experimentally induced and clinical pain states.

Research projects

  • The effects of motor cortex transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on central sensitisation in sciatica patients. Collaborator: Dr Paul Strutton (Imperial College London)
  • The effects of immersive virtual reality on cortical manifestations of secondary hyperalgesia. Collaborator: Dr Giorgio Ganis (University of Plymouth).
  • Understanding the brain and brainstem mechanisms of secondary hyperalgesia. Collaborator: Dr Matthew Howard (Kings College London).
  • Investigating the therapeutic potential of immersive natural environments using virtual reality in chronic low back pain patients. Collaborators: Dr Kayleigh Wyles and Prof Patricia Schofield (University of Plymouth).
  • The effects of immersive virtual reality on the development of secondary hyperalgesia: a role for the descending pain modulation system? Collaborator: Dr Matthew Howard (Kings College London).
  • The effects of transcranial ultrasound stimulation of the anterior cingulate cortex on experimentally induced secondary hyperalgesia. Collaborator: Dr Elsa Fouragnan (University of Plymouth)


2022 – 2025: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Neurotechnology for Chronic Pain. £1,161,841.47 (Co-Investigator).

2022 – 2024: Academy of Medical Sciences Springboard Award. Virtually painless? Steps towards mechanism-driven use of immersive virtual reality for chronic pain. £98,156.00 (Principle Investigator).

2019 – 2020: The Pain Relief Foundation. The effects of non-invasive brain stimulation on chronic pain and central sensitisation in patients with radicular low-back pain (sciatica): a randomised, sham-controlled proof-of-principle study. £21,207. (Co-investigator).

2022 – 2023: Plymouth Institute of Health and Care Research (PIHR). The effects of transcranial ultrasound stimulation of the anterior cingulate cortex in a human model of secondary hyperalgesia: a pilot study. £2,947.60. (Co-investigator).

2020 – 2024: Kings Prize/Anthony Mellow Fellowship. Harnessing brain and brainstem mechanisms of secondary hyperalgesia. £148,601. (Principle Investigator).


Journal articles

Bannister K, Hughes S (2023). One size does not fit all: towards optimising the therapeutic potential of endogenous pain modulatory systems. Pain, 164(1), e5-e9. Author URL.
Wong F, Reddy A, Rho Y, Vollert J, Strutton PH, Hughes SW (2023). Responders and nonresponders to topical capsaicin display distinct temporal summation of pain profiles. PAIN Reports, 8(3), e1071-e1071.
Mehesz E, Karoui H, Strutton PH, Hughes SW (2021). Exposure to an Immersive Virtual Reality Environment can Modulate Perceptual Correlates of Endogenous Analgesia and Central Sensitization in Healthy Volunteers. JOURNAL OF PAIN, 22(6), 707-714. Author URL.
Hughes SW, Ward G, Strutton PH (2020). Anodal transcranial direct current stimulation over the primary motor cortex attenuates capsaicin-induced dynamic mechanical allodynia and mechanical pain sensitivity in humans. EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF PAIN, 24(6), 1130-1137. Author URL.
Hughes SW, Basra M, Chan C, Parr C, Wong F, Gomes S, Strutton PH (2020). Capsaicin-Induced Changes in Electrical Pain Perception Threshold can be Used to Assess the Magnitude of Secondary Hyperalgesia in Humans. PAIN MEDICINE, 21(11), 2830-2838. Author URL.
Hughes SW, Hellyer PJ, Sharp DJ, Newbould RD, Patel MC, Strutton PH (2020). Diffusion tensor imaging of lumbar spinal nerves reveals changes in microstructural integrity following decompression surgery associated with improvements in clinical symptoms: a case report. MAGNETIC RESONANCE IMAGING, 69, 65-70. Author URL.
Hughes SW, Zhao H, Auvinet EJ, Strutton PH (2019). Attenuation of capsaicin-induced ongoing pain and secondary hyperalgesia during exposure to an immersive virtual reality environment. PAIN Reports, 4(6), e790-e790. Abstract.
Hughes SW, Hellyer PJ, Sharp DJ, Newbould RD, Patel MC, Strutton PH (2019). Diffusion tensor imaging reveals changes in microstructural integrity along compressed nerve roots that correlate with chronic pain symptoms and motor deficiencies in elderly stenosis patients. NeuroImage: Clinical, 23, 101880-101880.
Hughes S, Grimsey S, Strutton PH (2019). Primary Motor Cortex Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Modulates Temporal Summation of the Nociceptive Withdrawal Reflex in Healthy Subjects. PAIN MEDICINE, 20(6), 1156-1165. Author URL.
Hughes SW, Ali M, Sharma P, Insan N, Strutton PH (2018). Frequency‐dependent top‐down modulation of temporal summation by anodal transcranial direct‐current stimulation of the primary motor cortex in healthy adults. European Journal of Pain, 22(8), 1494-1501. Abstract.
Hughes S, Hickey L, Donaldson LF, Lumb BM, Pickering AE (2015). Intrathecal reboxetine suppresses evoked and ongoing neuropathic pain behaviours by restoring spinal noradrenergic inhibitory tone. PAIN, 156(2), 328-334. Author URL.
Hughes SW, Hickey L, Hulse RP, Lumb BM, Pickering AE (2013). Endogenous analgesic action of the pontospinal noradrenergic system spatially restricts and temporally delays the progression of neuropathic pain following tibial nerve injury. Pain, 154(9), 1680-1690.

sam_hughes Details from cache as at 2023-09-30 08:00:36

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External Engagement and Impact


2014: Faculty of Biomedical Sciences Commendation for PhD thesis (University of Bristol)

2018: Nominated for a Student Academic Choice Award for ‘Project Supervision’ (Imperial College London).

2019: Anthony Mellows Medal (Kings College London)

2021: Nominated for ‘Personal Tutor of the Year’ (University of Plymouth).

Editorial responsibilities

  • Frontiers in Pain Research (Editorial Board)

Invited lectures

  • European Pain Federation (EFIC)
  • Aalborg University (Denmark)
  • Kings College London (Wolfson CARD seminar series)
  • British Pain Society (BPS)

Media Coverage

Daily Telegraph: Immersive Arctic images can slash pain, scientists find.

Daily Mail: Watching soothing 360-degree scenes of the Arctic in virtual reality can help to ease chronic pain, scientists claim

Interview on BBC radio Cornwall on the use of immersive virtual reality in pain research (2021).

Featured on the British Psychological Society podcast on the topic of ‘how to cope with pain’.


Pain and sensory neuroscience




Supervision / Group

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